Niagara Falls tour operator leads industry toward all-electric future

Maid of the Mist

Buffalo earned the “City of Light” nickname more than a century ago as an early beneficiary of the electricity generated from nearby Niagara Falls.

The iconic Niagara Falls Maid of the Mist tour company made history of its own last fall when it took delivery of the first zero-emission passenger vessels built in the United States.

Maid of the Mist
Maid of the Mist makes up to 25 round trips a day around Niagara Falls.

The 90.5-foot aluminum catamarans James V. Glynn and Nikola Tesla run entirely on electricity stored in lithium-ion batteries within each hull. The battery banks power Ramme electric motors driving Veth L-drives and Naiad Dynamics bow thrusters. ABB engineered the electric power management system and supplied critical components, including shoreside charging infrastructure that can replenish the batteries in seven minutes. 

Propulsion Data Services of Marblehead, Mass., designed the 600-passenger vessels specifically for electric propulsion. Burger Boat Company built modules for the two boats at its Manitowoc, Wis., shipyard. Hohl Industrial Services assembled the modules at Maid of the Mist’s maintenance yard just downstream of the falls. Ferguson Electric and Tucker Yacht Design provided key expertise during the project.

“Our new boats are not bleeding edge, but leading edge,” Maid of the Mist President Christopher Glynn said. “The technologies are well known, but this is the first time they have been employed in this context in the U.S.”

“We calculated some savings compared to fuel costs in the move to electric, but this was not the primary motivation,” he added. “More significantly, there is a great interest in sustainability today, including low or no emissions. Once we decided to make the shift to all-electric, I was confident that our team had made the right call.”

Niagara Falls, located about 20 miles north of Buffalo, formed thousands of years ago during the last ice age. American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls are located on the U.S. side, and Horseshoe Falls is on the Canadian side. All told, 6 million cubic feet of water from four Great Lakes pass over the falls every minute.

The original steam-powered Maid of the Mist began operating in 1846. It was first used as a passenger and cargo ferry, and two years later it started carrying paying customers closer to the majestic falls. The modern iteration of the tour company started in 1885, with the 70-foot, wooden-hulled Maid of the Mist I

Current company Chairman and CEO James V. Glynn acquired the business in 1971. James V. Glynn and Nikola Tesla will replace diesel monohulls Maid of the Mist VI and Maid of the Mist VII, which date to 1990 and 1997, respectively. The attraction has operated for 135 consecutive years, and each year carries nearly 1.6 million passengers. 

Maid of the Mist’s operating profile is a near-perfect fit for electric propulsion, said Edward Schwarz, ABB’s vice president for newbuilds in North America. The tour company’s vessels make up to 25 round trips a day, but travel relatively short distances. Each trip lasts only about 20 minutes, and the 10 minutes between each voyage leaves enough time to charge the batteries for the next run.

John Koopman, president of Propulsion Data Services, analyzed power requirements for the existing tour boats. He determined the vessels avoid the strongest currents when pushing upriver toward the falls. Those same currents nudge the boats downriver as they return to the dock. The highest power demands occur during docking when crews place the vessel into reverse while guiding it into position at the dock.

James V. Glynn and Nikola Tesla are relatively simple vessels above the hull. They are built with two observation decks. The enclosed pilothouse is forward on the main level, the staircase to the upper level is roughly amidships and the ADA-compliant head is located aft along the centerline. Each vessel operates with six crew. 

The power plants on James V. Glynn and Nikola Tesla deliver 400 kW of total output (536 hp). Primary propulsion comes from 200-kW Ramme electric motors powering Veth L-drives that rotate 360 degrees. Each bow has a 20-inch Naiad Dynamics right angle bow thruster powered by a 60-kW Ramme motor. Spear Power Systems, based near Kansas City, Mo., supplied the batteries storing up to 158 kWh in each hull.

Each hull operates independently, providing redundancy should any problem arise in either system while underway. The propulsion package in each side can propel the vessel at 8 knots. Its top speed is close to 11 knots. The boats normally travel between 6 and 8 knots during tours. 

Electric propulsion offers some notable advantages over traditional diesel engines. It responds quickly and can turn as slowly as one shaft rotation per minute, offering the captain more control at slower speeds. “It really adds to the experience … without the rumble of the engine and the exhaust gas, and it is really quiet and almost a sailboat experience,” Schwarz said. “And there is no vibration.”

There is not a traditional engine room on the new boats. Instead, each hull consists of watertight machinery spaces. Running fore to aft are: A compartment for the bow thrusters followed by a space with the DC bus and related power management components. That space connects to a battery compartment with twin water-cooled battery banks rated to A60 fire standards. Leading to the stern are void and tank space followed by the L-drive compartment.

“What used to be the engine is now the batteries,” Schwarz said. “The batteries supply electricity and we then manage that electricity through the system connected to motors. Rather than have engines moving to provide propulsion, we have electric motors, which are much more efficient and effective than engines.”

The battery system on James V. Glynn and Nikola Tesla are large enough to complete at least five round trips without recharging. Each system is designed for rapid replenishment after a voyage to keep the batteries between 50 and 80 percent of their total capacity, Koopman said. He expects the batteries on these vessels to last a decade or more. 

“They are drawing down the battery over a period of 20 minutes and replacing it in a matter of seven, so the strain on the battery is much higher during the charging process than during the operating process,” Koopman explained. “To handle the rate of charge is what sets the size of the battery, not the rate of discharge.”

Each boat connects to shoreside power through a 700-kW Cavotec system, with a pair of plugs that are nearly a foot in diameter. The shoreside system requires a special feeder supporting the weight of the cord during charging. The Robert Moses Niagara Power Station, located a few miles downriver, generates clean hydropower used to charge the batteries.

Maid of the Mist is located at the base of a 160-foot gorge, with the waterfalls upriver and impassable Class VI rapids and whirlpools downriver. The company’s maintenance yard is located at the site of an old power plant just downriver from the falls. As such, getting the vessels into position was no small feat. 

Burger Boat built modules for James V. Glynn and Nikola Tesla at its Wisconsin shipyard using a high-grade aluminum alloy. Hohl Industrial Services of Buffalo trucked those pieces back to New York and then lowered them into the gorge one by one. Hohl crews assembled the components alongside the Niagara River, and then oversaw placement into the water last fall. 

“It was a real challenge to build these vessels in this space,” Christopher Glynn said. “It was a lot of hard work, with a lot of the finish work performed by our own folks, and I want to express my gratitude to them. They are beautiful boats and people will really enjoy riding on them.”

James V. Glynn is named for Maid of the Mist’s chairman and CEO, who has devoted much of his life to the tour company. He began selling tickets for the attraction as a teenager in the 1950s. He was general manager in 1971 when he bought the company. Glynn is known around Western New York for his philanthropy.

The second boat is named for inventor Nikola Tesla, who, with George Westinghouse, built the world’s first large-scale hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls in 1895. The electrical current generated by the plant supplied power to nearby Buffalo starting in 1896.

In addition to ABB and Propulsion Data Services, Maid of the Mist turned to several other partners to ensure a successful project. Micah Tucker of Tucker Yacht Design was instrumental in assisting Maid of the Mist through construction and the regulatory approval process, Glynn said. Ferguson Electric, a Buffalo-based electrical contractor founded 85 years ago, performed extensive electrical work, including wiring and installing the electrical equipment.

As of late-September, Maid of the Mist was still awaiting final regulatory approval to operate the boats. The company hopes to begin using them on tours before the 2020 season comes to an end in November. 

“Now we are very excited to see how they perform. They will be quiet and clean, with an overall better passenger experience,” Christopher Glynn said. “I believe they will be very well received.” 

By Professional Mariner Staff